I received a pleasant surprise when I finally decided to take myself along to Hal Hartley's Amateur. I had been resisting it for months, for I had come to resent Hal and the Hartley cult – that is to say, the phenomenon whereby any old thing that this young American director knocks off in a hurry gets a big arthouse release in Australia, while other, better, bolder films never get a showing.
Watching Hartley's films throughout the '90s – The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990), Simple Men (1992), Surviving Desire (1992) – I had come to believe that his style had become too rigid and repetitious. And his films were getting emptier and more flippant with each repetition.
I have always found Hartley's films derivative, too, in a way I intensely dislike – because he seems to steal from filmmakers who don't have anywhere near the same fame and funding opportunities as he has. Just as Lars von Trier (Zentropa, 1992, The Kingdom, 1994) might be said to pinch techniques and imagery from the French-Chilean Raśl Ruiz, Hartley appears to take especially from the experimental filmmaker Mark Rappaport. That's my version of cinema history, anyway, and I'm sticking to it.
However, it seems that Hartley himself started worrying at some point that his films were becoming rigid and repetitious. The Movie Show on SBS television ran an interview early in 1995 where Hal described how disconcerted he was when he opened up a newspaper and saw someone else's movie described as "Hartleyesque". So, with Amateur, he claimed, he was trying something different. When I saw the trailer, with the same old actors doing the same old poses inside the same old camera angles, I figured that possibly Hartley had not yet succeeded in doing anything different. But – I was wrong.
Amateur is unquestionably Hartley's best film. It is intricate and involving in a way his films almost never are. I found this one a great deal funnier than his previous efforts – and also, not so completely flip. Of course, Amateur is a droll film, and it's that drollness that makes it completely recognisable as a film by Hartley. Glamorous people still pose in static shots, swapping low-energy one-liners about capitalism, or floppy discs. "But these floppy discs are square, and they're stiff" – you get that gag twice in the film, and it works both times.
Hartley has always described himself as something of a conceptual filmmaker. He makes movies not about real people, and hardly even about fictional characters sometimes. He's interested in his characters as ciphers, or rather as emblems – they stand for a philosophical position, or a lifestyle, or a bundle of values. Hartley is interested in setting up a crazy geometry of these diverse emblematic characters, a kooky diagram where such ciphers intersect or combine or cancel each other out.
"There's only desire and trouble" – that's one of those Hartleyesque mottos that everyone likes to quote when discussing his films. I have always found this fairly simple, conceptual project of Hartley's interesting, but not always very vividly realised on screen. When the geometrical progressions and plot moves wear down, and the one-liners start sounding tired, I think of Hartley as the David Williamson of Generation X – there's a curious affinity, after all, between the playwright's Travelling North (filmed by Carl Schultz, 1987) and Simple Men, or Dead White Males and Surviving Desire, particularly where a certain male pathos is concerned. Come to think of it, Hartley's heroes are rather like Williamson's Aussie blokes – slow moving, laconic, tersely spoken, troubled and desiring, looking for a way home and, finally, more than a little bit maudlin, under all the glib one-liner patter.
I have sometimes thought that, in Hartley's previous films, the ideas that the characters discoursed about didn't always match the story they were in. There's been a free-floating feel to Hartley's concepts, and that has annoyed me. In Amateur, though, there is a meshing of story and themes, of characters and ideas, that is new and satisfying. We get a complex series of overlaps between people in this plot. Thomas (Martin Donovan) has been thrown out a window, and lost his memory. Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who bumps into him in a bar, used to be a nun, and is now trying to write pornography. The woman who threw Thomas out the window, Sofia (Elina Löwensohn), is trying to get out of the pornography racket. Various other people connect with these central three, especially a pair of suited accountants who casually perform tasks of torture and murder.
There are all kinds of mirroring, rhyming and reversing relations between these characters. One guy has lost his memory through a traumatic fall; another seemingly loses his mind after he is tortured. One of them will eventually be mistaken for the other. Isabelle is looking for a life based on sex; Sofia is looking to get out of such a life – and at one point they meet each other across a table, wearing the same clothes. The whole film turns on the essential mystery of intimate relationships, the mystery of every individual to those around them. Thomas seems to be a nice guy now, but what was he yesterday, before his fall – a swindler, a killer, a sadist, maybe something worse? Can Sofia betray him, knowing what he was; can Isabelle love him, knowing what he is? In Trust, Hartley displayed his fondness for coolly understated tragic endings – when two people have just taken the first steps to trust each other intimately, and then malign destiny, or the social world's reality principle, steps in and breaks the utopian idyll. Amateur ends up in a patently absurd setting – the convent where Huppert used to live – but even here, the finale turns out to be unexpectedly serious and affecting.
As I've mentioned, this is, for the most part, an extremely funny film. I once caught Löwensohn in an episode of the television show Seinfeld, and ever since then I haven't been able to shake the strange association of Hartley's films with this show. There's that droll, everyday, flip aspect to both. And Edward (Damian Young), who gets electrocuted in Amateur and spends the rest of the film careering around like a maniac with wild hair, has definitely got a touch of Kramer about him. I could imagine Hartley devising a laid-back television sit-com. Watching Amateur, I was impressed with his growing ability to blend his diverse performers into a thoroughly Hartleyesque, deadpan ensemble. And I was especially impressed with his way with casting. There are many odd, delicious, small parts in this film, such as the female cop who is far too sensitive for her job, a teenage boy on a park bench who appears to be played by a teenage girl, and a marvellously direct editor of a porno magazine. I'm sure Hartley cast this last guy because his high-pitched voice alone is hilariously funny.
I've never been too impressed by Hartley's visual style. It has long had a kind of angular flatness to it, with the actors pinned against bare walls, or crawling in straight lateral directions left and right with the camera. It's the kind of neutral, even bare style which is handled with more panache, and with far more humour, by the French filmmaker Luc Moullet – who, not surprisingly, is a big Hartley champion in Europe. But in Amateur, Hartley's style has evolved and expanded considerably. In fact, it's become a style deeply reminiscent of the recent films by Jean-Luc Godard – and I don't think this influence has turned out to be a bad thing at all. Where once his films tended to be monotonal and one-dimensional, now there are unusual transitions of mood between and even within scenes. In the middle of a scene, he'll give us an odd high angle of a character, with no background noise, perhaps in slow motion, as if the character is absorbed in his or her world – and we get absorbed into it, too, for a second. And then, just as suddenly, Hartley will return us to a more general view of the situation, to its noise and social dynamics. Amateur is better on the eye (and the ear) than any previous Hartley film.
There's other Godardian stuff in the film, too. Like the moments of violence, which swing between Pop Art jokes, and sudden disconcerting jabs of pain or death. There's a passage late in the film where one character finally shoots somebody he has been tailing: he lurches in and out of the frame, firing his gun over and over, as the dying man stumbles and finally falls – it's an absolute comic gem, like some cross between Tarantino and Aki Kaurismaki. And the weirdly chaste, sexless character of the entire proceedings is also a bit Godardian – our era of AIDS is never explicitly mentioned, but its melancholy echo is never far outside the frame in either Hartley or Godard. And the ending, too, is extremely Godardian, reminding me of the sad-sack hero at the end of Sauve qui peut (1980) who gets knocked over by a car and then lies dying on the ground, desperately wondering: "Is my life passing before my eyes?"
With Amateur, Hartley has moved into a new kind of poetry, beyond his previous small-town poetry of gas pumps and bored people lounging on front steps and kids playing guitars in garages. With the French influence of Huppert and Godard, Hartley has now become a strangely cosmopolitan, Europhile director, and less of a deep-dish American eccentric. Personally, I think it's a change for the better.
© Adrian Martin September 1995